Hello Everyone,

The Confederate battle flag was removed from the grounds of the South Carolina State House this morning in a dignified ceremony.  So ends an extraordinary two week period in U.S. history when we’ve actually witnessed the arc of the moral universe bending towards justice, to adapt the now-famous words of a 19th-century abolitionist, and as has been pointed out by others.   The Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage, followed by the Charleston tragedy and the church’s astoundingly gracious response to it, and now the battle flag is down.

Last time, I wrote about how the same-sex marriage decision caused me to think about a similarly momentous decision sixty-one years earlier which ended legalized segregation in public schools.

Likewise, President Obama’s exceptional eulogy for Rev. Clementa Pinckney, delivered the same day as the recent Court decision, caused me to immediately think of his March 2008 “A More Perfect Union” speech in Philadelphia.  In the latter, then-candidate Obama sought to quell the firestorm emanating from incendiary remarks made by another black pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, who led Obama’s church.  The differences between the two occasions are stark, but the messages are of a piece.

Two friends of mine called my attention to a Pulitzer-prize-winning literary critic’s review of the President’s eulogy in the Arts section of the New York Times.  Michiko Kakutani called it “remarkable” in part because it:

 …drew on all of Mr. Obama’s gifts of language and empathy and searching intellect — first glimpsed in “Dreams From My Father,” his…1995 memoir [published when he was 34 years old]. And because it used those gifts to talk about the complexities of race and justice, situating them within an echoing continuum in time that reflected both Mr. Obama’s own long view of history, and the panoramic vision of America, shared by Abraham Lincoln and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., as a country in the process of perfecting itself.


The Times piece is well worth reading (see Attachment A) as is the eulogy itself (see Attachment B).

I did not write about Obama’s Philadelphia speech, although I listened to it and then read it at the time, as is my custom.  (It is almost twice as long as the eulogy and equally worth reading; see Attachment C.)  Here are some excerpts:

[In 1787, the Constitution] was eventually signed, but ultimately unfinished. It was stained by this nation’s original sin of slavery…Of course, the answer to the slavery question was already embedded within our Constitution — a Constitution that had at its very core the ideal of equal citizenship under the law…

And yet words on a parchment would not be enough to deliver slaves from bondage, or provide men and women of every color and creed their full rights and obligations as citizens of the United States. What would be needed were Americans in successive generations who were willing to do their part…to narrow that gap between the promise of our ideals and the reality of their time…

Now throughout the first year of this campaign…we saw how hungry the American people were for this message of unity…In South Carolina, where the Confederate flag still flies [emphasis added], we built a powerful coalition of African Americans and white Americans…

But race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now. We would be making the same mistake that Reverend Wright made in his offending sermons about America: to simplify and stereotype and amplify the negative to the point that it distorts reality. The fact is that the comments that have been made and the issues that have surfaced over the last few weeks reflect the complexities of race in this country that we’ve never really worked through, a part of our union that we have not yet made perfect…

The profound mistake of Reverend Wright’s sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society. It’s that he spoke as if our society was static, as if no progress had been made, as if this country…is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past. What we know, what we have seen, is that America can change. That is true genius of this nation. What we have already achieved gives us hope — the audacity to hope — for what we can and must achieve tomorrow.

In the end, then, what is called for is nothing more and nothing less than what all the world’s great religions demand: that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us. Let us be our brother’s keeper, Scripture tells us. Let us be our sister’s keeper. Let us find that common stake we all have in one another, and let our politics reflect that spirit as well.

This union may never be perfect, but generation after generation has shown that it can always be perfected.

None other than Peggy Noonan of the Wall Street Journal praised the Philadelphia address as “a thinking man’s speech.”

Rev. Wright’s comments that prompted the speech surfaced in the heart of the heated Democratic primary, threatening to derail Obama’s bid for the nomination.  Ten days after the Philadelphia speech, I wrote Obamagram #23.  In it, I noted that, with 45 states and territories having already been decided, Mr. Obama’s lead in the primary was virtually insurmountable.  However, due to that threat, I spent considerable time learning about Rev. Wright.  I talked to his professors at the University of Chicago Divinity School, to friends who were members of his congregation, and to the Amherst chaplain who had hosted him a year earlier when he spoke at the College’s MLK Day celebration.  I even attended a service at his church on Chicago’s South Side to see for myself.  I concluded that it was a tempest in a teapot and never wrote about it in this space.

As Ms. Kakutani wrote following the recent eulogy:  For Mr. Obama, America is a “constant work in progress,” a nation founded upon the idea of new beginnings…[and] that “we can constantly remake ourselves to fit our larger dreams…”

These are themes that have animated Mr. Obama’s writings and oratory for [more than twenty] years.

As he’s done in his most powerful earlier work, Mr. Obama drew upon his own knowledge of Scripture and literature and history — much the way Lincoln and Dr. King did in their writings — to create a musical narrative that uses biblical and historical allusions to widen the dimensions of his storytelling, while moving between the vernacular and the metaphorical, between particular issues…([such as] the hurt and hate represented by the Confederate battle flag) [emphasis added] and larger moral and spiritual imperatives…

In addition to their consistent themes, the other links between these two talks, given seven years apart, are their high-mindedness, intelligence, temperance, sense of history, and hopefulness.  It is also worth noting that Mr. Obama wrote the 2008 Philadelphia speech virtually in its entirety and reportedly spent five scarce presidential hours shaping the 2015 Charleston eulogy.  These are his thoughts and words.

It is extraordinary to see tangible progress toward a more perfect union literally unfolding before our eyes.

Please, as always, pass it on.  And, remember that previous Obamagrams are stored on www.obamagrams.com


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Attachment A – Obama’s Eulogy…History by M. Kakutani 7-3-15


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Attachment B – Remarks by the President in Eulogy…Pinckney 6-26-15


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Attachment C – Barack Obama – More Perfect Union 3-18-08



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